Above all, Sukkot is a time of ingathering; it is the time of harvest in the Land of Israel. The Sukkah itself brings family and friends together. Furthermore, the mitzvah of gathering together the four species reinforces this idea of binding disparate elements. The Midrash teaches how the four species alludes to four types of people: those with both knowledge and deeds (good scent and taste, i.e. the etrog, or citron); those with knowledge only (taste, i.e. the lulav, or date-palm); those with only deeds (scent, i.e. the hadas, or myrtle); and those with neither of the two (the aravot, or willows). Sukkot brings them altogether as one.
The sukkah reminds us of our past: "כי בסוכות הושבתי את בני ישראל בהצאיי אותם מארץ מצרים" (“…because I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in sukkot [booths] when I brought them forth from the land of Egypt.) The Sages dispute whether the sukkot in the verse refer to the natural huts the Israelites must have camped in on their sojourn through the Sinai or to the supernatural Clouds of Glory that protected them from all sides as well as from above and from below.
At the same time, the sukkah makes us think about our future and question the certainty of things. We leave our permanent domains and have a taste of impermanence, to remember how everything in this material world, no matter how good it may seem, is subject to the law of change. “Vanity of vanities; everything is vanity,” as King Solomon reminds us in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), read in the synagogue during Sukkot.
Yet, it is within this state of impermanence that our “eternal salvation” dwells. The special commandment of Sukkot ושמחת בחגיך והיית אך שמח (“And you shall rejoice on your holiday, and you shall be only joyful.”) entails a simple state of spiritual happiness to be experienced while under the canopy of palm fronds and branches.
At the mystical level, during Sukkot the “ingathering” facilitates an internal process that is meant to lead to the experience of unity consciousness, where the boundaries of duality—of self and other, of transcendent and immanent—those “permanent walls’ of the ego dissolve into Oneness. It is not coincidental that the word שמחה (joy) cited in the mitzvah of rejoicing is a euphemism for a wedding. Kabbalistic texts liken the sukkah itself to the wedding canopy and the seven days of the holiday to the seven circles the bride makes around the bridegroom, prior to the marriage ceremony and blissful union that takes place on the eighth day of Shemini Atzeret.
According to the Sefer Yetzirah, which ascribes each of the Hebrew months to a letter, astrological sign and function, the month of Tishrei is ruled by the letter (ל) Lamed, the sign of Libra and the function of coition. At the opposite time of the year Nissan is ruled by Heh, the sign of Aires and the function of speech. During Pesach the main mitzvah is with our mouths, the retelling of the story of the exodus through the Haggadah, literally “the telling”. During Sukkot we do not have to say anything in the sukkah; we only have to be there. That simple act of presence demanded of us opens up channels that are transformative and healing.
These channels are consciously accessed in the waving of the lulav and etrog. The three myrtles are channels for the sefirotic influences of Chesed, Gevurah and Tiferet; the two willows for Netzach and Hod; the palm frond for Yesod. Only during the waving are these six, representing the masculine Expression of Zeir Anpin(the “Small Face”), joined together with the etrog (citron), embodying the feminine Malchut, or Shekhina, the immanent Divine Presence. They are the waved in six directions. According to the version of the Ari these correspond to the six points of Zeir Anpin: South=Chesed; North=Gevurah; East=Tiferet; up=Netzach; Down=Hod; West=Yesod. Each drawing of the species towards the heart, channelling the supernal flow into immanent reality, corresponds to the receiver of Malchut. The custom of the Ari was to wave the lulav inside the sukkah, as its encompassing three (mandatory) walls corresponded to the three upper sefirot of Keter, Chochmah and Binah, the mochin, the Supernal Mind. This is meant to open up a flow of the Or Ha-Makif, the Enveloping Light, through Binah and then through the merging of the lower seven.
On the level of physical reality, we are taught that this waving is to bring forth water. The theme of water, in fact, appears prominently in Sukkot in the unique ceremonial drawing and libation of water that took place on the altar of the Holy Temple. The celebration of this event the Simchat Beit-Hashoeva used to inspire the sages to perform astounding feats through Divine Inspiration. It is said that one who had never witnessed the joy of the Simchat Beit-Hashoeva in Jerusalem in the days of the Temple had never witnessed true joy.
According to kabbalah, the water refers to the spiritual Upper waters, the rivers of the Upper Gan Eden, rooted in Binah, which flow unhindered by the channels opened through the ingathering of forces below. This also surfaces in the Zohar segment we read in which Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Abbi meet Rabbi Shimon after their encounter with the soul of Rav Hamnuna. Rabbi Shimon, who claims they have become transformed from the encounter and nicknames them “Faces of God”, explains that these souls come from the Upper Gan Eden (Binah) through the Lower (Shekhina) to reveal their wisdom to human beings.
Our custom in Sukkot to invite the supernal guests (Avraham=Chesed; Isaac=Gevurah; Yaakov=Tiferet; Moshe=Netzach; Aaron=Hod; Yosef=Yesod; David=Malchut), the ushpizin, is more than a ritual formality. Each cosmic guest is an opportunity to absorb the special energy of each of the seven days and allow the higher wisdom it imparts to enter our lives.
Because our experience during Sukkot is more sensorial than verbal, the mystical intent and the foundation of the imperative simcha is an actual perception of Divine Unity. The name sukkah is rooted in the verb סוכה which means “to perceive”. There must be space enough in the roof covering for the stars, those symbols of the everlasting, to be visible. Even in our transient shacks the light of eternity must peer through; and even the ultimate “vanity of vanities” and exemplar of impermanence, the human body, becomes a remarkable channel of infinite light.
The gematria, or numerical value, of סוכה (sukkah) is 91. This is equivalent to the Divine Name YHVH (26) and the Name through which it is pronounced ADNY (55). The transcendent God, “who was, is and always will be” beyond spatial or temporal boundaries, and the immanent Goddess, the Shekhina, the light of holiness that radiates within all that is manifest, become truly one.
From this vantage point the Talmudic dispute over whether we commemorate the dwelling in simple huts or the supernatural protection of the Clouds of Glory is understandable from both angles. The natural experience of sitting in a sukkah is the same as the transcendent one of being transported on the Clouds of Glory. The atoms in the earth beneath our feet and in the sky we breathe from ARE the Clouds of Glory, carrying us through the myriad manifestations of One Eternal Moment.
So, sit back in your sukkah, invite your friends and loved ones, take a look at the stars and enjoy a good meal. While doing so, you can experience the Divine Inspiration reserved for prophets of the Messianic era; the exalted state where “God and His Name are one”; where the lines between Yin and Yang conjoin in the Tao; where Emptiness and Form become symbiotic.
And even if you don’t have a physical sukkah you are still invited to the celebration of Divine Unity. For even when we pack up our sukkah and return to the illusion of our permanent homes, absolute Oneness is still the only game in town.
Sometimes it requires stepping outside ourselves (into a sukkah) and shaking things up a bit (like the lulav) to know that. In the end, though, you just have to BE there.
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This blog is dedicated to the exploration of mystical wisdom and life experience. It seeks to penetrate beyond the shadows and surfaces of our physical reality to discover vistas of unfathomable depth, beauty and meaning. These mystical realms are closer than you might imagine, for they exist in every multifold aspect of the observed empiricial world, as they do within the consciousness of the observer. In the infinite silence and contracted light, within the ethereal mirage of every passing moment, the eternal search begins and ends...